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Giving your picky eaters trading power in the lunch room

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Posted: Friday, September 12, 2008 10:00 pm

We are well into September. The schools are all back in full swing and the chore of packing lunch is once again challenging moms everywhere.

What to pack in school lunch boxes is one of my most asked questions. Parents are looking for any ideas or suggestions to add variety to that deli sandwich fall-back. My childhood lunch memories consist of a boiled ham sandwich on white bread with mayo. By lunch time the bread would be extra soft and smashed paper thin, guaranteed to stick to the roof of my mouth. I do not know if I refused to eat anything else or if this was the extent of my mother's brown-bagging creative vision. I do remember feeling lucky when I was able to eat someone else's fried bologna sandwich with barbeque sauce. It would feel like a present, wrapped in foil, still warm from the frying pan.

My mother did well to get myself and two siblings out the door with breakfast eaten, lunch bag in hand, dressed for work and delivered to three different schools by 8 am. I know she was just as excited as I was on the days that pizza with a side of corn could be bought in the cafeteria and she could just give us 50 cents for lunch.

I have not had to tackle lunch box packing duty yet since my son attends preschool where his day ends before noon or includes lunch. So, I know there are more than a few veteran moms out there more qualified than I am on this subject, and I'm sure some of these ideas you have heard before. I'm hoping to inspire you to get creative, motivate you to find some fun in this chore and encourage you to play with your food.

Start by giving your kids a limited choice of what goes in the lunch bag, and then let them help. Don't ask, "What do you want for lunch?" Ask specifically, "Do you want a ham sandwich or pita pocket?" Kids who feel involved and part of the process are more willing to do anything, even eat. If your pint size foodie wants to layer sour cream and onion potato chips between his peanut butter and jelly sandwich, let him.

We eat first with our eyes. Food that looks appealing seems to taste better and this is also true for children. Simply changing the shape or the way fruits and vegetables are cut can add interest. Making a cucumber or red pepper chain is always a hit. Link slices together that have had the centers removed, then make a slit in every other ring and join them into a small chain. Play a game of shapes and color by adding a different shape each day, then quizzing your child at the end of the day. Use a melon baller to make melon, avocado, or cucumber balls or an apple corer to make long cylinder shapes. Cut squares of carrots, zucchini, jicama or cucumbers instead of sticks. Triangular shapes are made by cutting the squares diagonally. Include a little container of dip or hummus as an extra bonus.

Make attention-grabbing sandwiches by using cookie cutters to cut out fun shapes or letters. Keep sandwiches interesting by changing the bread to pita pockets, or using tortillas as wraps. Wraps are easy to eat and fun to make interesting. Turkey wraps filled with carrot raisin salad, or a turkey wrap spread with cream cheese and cranberry sauce are just two ideas. English muffins, bagels and waffles are not just for breakfast and can be used for lunch sandwiches. Fillings of honey with peanut butter, jam paired with cream cheese or other soft cheeses, bananas and peanut butter all work on breakfast breads and as roll ups. Even mini muffins or savory scones can be enough for a child's lunch when served with sliced fruit and a yogurt cup.

Or forget the bread altogether. Take a cue from the pre-packaged Lunchables and use crackers paired with fun shapes of cheese and lunch meats. Just pack them separately to keep the crackers crisp.

Everyone loves to eat food off a stick so make small kabobs of cubed meat with cheese. Be creative and combine things that are good to eat together like ham with chunks of pineapple, cherry tomatoes with ciliegini sized fresh mozzarella cheese or salami with olives or mini pickles are all great combinations. If your school's zero tolerance policy encompasses toothpick-welding children, popsicle sticks with a little less poking potential could also be used.

Pay a little extra attention to packaging and include a note, cartoon, stickers, fun eraser or new pencil. Don't forget that lunch boxes are left at room temperature and to use insulated lunch bags or thermos. Blue ice in smaller sizes works well, but half frozen bottles of water or juice boxes can also provide some extra chill. Even pudding cups can be frozen for a Popsicle type dessert while keeping food cool. A little experimentation may be needed to find the right amount of pre-freezing time so that the items are thawed enough to eat or drink by lunch time.

Add a fun napkin, and seal it with a chocolate kiss and your lunches are guaranteed to be a hit with trading power.

Lodi resident Nancy Rostomily is a southern girl at heart, who enjoys the art and science of food. She can be reached at



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